Back to Basics: Digital Printing Vs Offset Printing and How Do I Choose What to Use?
First a very brief explanation of both offset and digital printing.
Offset lithography is the most common high volume commercial printing technology. In offset printing, the desired print image is burned onto a plate and is then transferred (or offset) from the plate to a rubber blanket, and then to the printing surface (the paper).
Digital printing eliminates many of the mechanical steps required for conventional printing, including making plates and virtually eliminates any make ready waste as it transfers a digital image directly to the paper.
Each process has its advantages.
Advantages of Offset
Lower cost per unit for longer runs (unit cost goes down as print quantity goes up)
Better quality with higher image resolution
More paper options (most digital devices have limitations as to what papers, weights and finishes can be used)
Pantone spot color and metallic ink options (while the newest digital technology offers some options for metallic and opaque white colors, most produce all color as a CMYK build)
Advantages of Digital
Cheaper low volume printing
Print only what you need, when you need it. Low, to no, minimum order quantities
Faster turn-around times (no drying time required)
Variable Data printing so each page can be unique
Instant Proofing, since each proof IS a print
Less waste since there’s virtually ZERO make-ready. More accurate counts, less waste and fewer variations, due to not having to balance ink and water during press run
Making your decision really comes down to the needs and requirements of each unique project. Digital is the best choice for small runs needed in a hurry, as long as you don’t need special papers or spot colors. If you need a large quantity, have special paper or ink requirements (like match a specific Pantone color) offset is the way to go.
Still not sure? Let’s look at the deciding factors.
Quantity. Offset printing has startup costs (plates, make-ready, etc.). Short runs may have a high unit cost. But as quantities increase, the unit cost goes down with offset printing. Very short runs can be much more cost effective with digital printing; while larger quantities are likely to have a lower unit cost with offset printing.
Printing medium. Do you need or want a special paper, finish or unique/oversized size? The options are increasing for digital, but offset printing still offers the most flexibility.
Color. Digital presses use four-color process printing. If you need only black ink or one or two ink colors, offset printing may offer a more cost-effective solution. If you need four-color printing, digital may offer advantages in lower up-front costs.
If you’re planning to print using Pantones (including metallic or neon), offset printing will give you the best match, since it is a precisely mixed color. Digital printing simulates the color using a four-color process, so some digital printers may offer less accurate color matching on projects.
Turnaround. If you need it fast, digital usually offers quicker delivery.
Proofing. Digital offers the most accurate proofs since you see an actual sample of the printed piece. Color proofing for offset printing is generally very accurate, but proofs are created with equipment that simulates the final product rather than an actual printed piece like a digital “proof”.
Customization. Without question, digital printing offers the most affordable way to customize marketing materials, direct mail pieces, letters, etc.